Rebecca appears to be studying intensely in class. She seems to do everything with intensity and self-preservation. Like all students at this remote village school, she carried her own plastic chair to and from class. Unlike most other students she recently watched her 13 year old sister die of hunger.
Rebecca and her family arrived 15 days ago to this small village that is hosting them in near the swamps of South Sudan. They ran when government soldiers attacked their village in nearby Mayendit county and spent weeks in the swamps with no food—and no way to catch animals. "We ate water lilies and some wild fruit," she said, standing in the school yard.
A famine has been declared in Mayendit county and neighboring Leer, as many others like Rebecca and her family have been forced from their homes into desolate hiding places. Thousands are dying in the reeds of Africa's Sudd wetlands. It's an effective hiding place from fighters hunting civilians, but a hungry one.
The beauty of this area is remarkable—all manner of birdlife can be spotted as we gently float down the maze of waterways in a traditional wooden canoe. The occasional group of rebel fighters float by, crouched with their long legs around their ears, AK47 in hand.
Rebecca's mother took us into the swamp again to collect dinner. She has registered with the UN for food supplies when airplane drops happen nearby, but they have not received any food yet, she said. So every day she wades back into the swamp to reach deep into the muddy water for lily flower roots. Splashing around for 15 minutes in the thigh-high brown water produces a small handful of the plants. They are bumpy black nubs, the size of daffodil bulbs, and look inedible.
The family do however have a traditional house live in. The community here hosting them is providing some help. But even without the war and influx of strangers, this is hungry season in South Sudan. There's not much to go around.
Rebecca does get to go to school though. Mercy Corps opened a small tin-roofed schoolhouse a few years ago, and she travels on foot with a plastic chair over her shoulder every day. She doesn't seem to socialize with the other children much, and never smiles. Crouched over a notebook on her knee, she quietly sounds out the words as she writes.
This Field Note includes photos added after original publication.